Help! Meaning of sankhara

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Mr Empty
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Help! Meaning of sankhara

Post by Mr Empty »

Hello :)

Is there anyone that can achieve the impossible, by explaining to me successfully in idiot language the meaning of sankhara? I understand the meaning in terms of all things being sankhara, but in the context of paticcasamuppada and the aggregates - I am struggling. Is it in actual fact more straight forward than my complicated little brain? Or more complicated? :)
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Re: What is the Meaning of Sankhāra?

Post by Bhikkhu Pesala »

If the Dhamma was simple, we would all be Enlightened by now.

Saṅkhāra is usually translated as mental formations or volitional activities. In other words it is kamma. Dependent on ignorance we perform volitional activities by body, speech, and thought, which are sankhārā.

Those that are light are like a line drawn on water, which quickly disappears.
Those that are medium are like a line draw in sand, which disappears after a while.
Those that are heavy are like a line carved in rock, which disappears only after a long time.

Actions are kamma, which if repeated become habits. Life-long habits mould one's character.
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Re: Help!

Post by dhammacoustic »

What is saṅkhāra?
Formation, compound, fashioning, fabrication - the forces and factors that fashion things (physical or mental), the process of fashioning, and the fashioned things that result. Saṅkhāra can refer to anything formed or fashioned by conditions, or, more specifically, (as one of the five khandhas) thought formations within the mind.

Anicca Vata Saṅkhāra
Sankhāra: This term has, according to its context, different shades of meaning, which should be carefully distinguished.

I To its most frequent usages see: foll. 1-4 the general term 'construction' may be applied, with the qualifications required by the context. This term may refer either to the act of 'forming or to the passive state of 'having been formed' or to both.

1. As the 2nd link of the formula of dependent origination, paticcasamuppāda, sankhāra has the active aspect, 'forming, and signifies kamma, i.e. advantageous or disadvantageous intentional activity cetanā of body kāya-s speech vacī-s or mind citta or mano-s This definition occurs, e.g. at S. XII, 2, 27. For s.: in this sense, the word 'kamma-construction' has been coined by the author. In other passages, in the same context, s. is defined by reference to a meritorious kammic-constructions puññ'ābhisankhāra b disadvantageous k. apuññ'abhisankhāra c imperturbable k. āneñj'ābhisankhāra e.g. in S. XII, 51; D. 33. This threefold division covers kammic activity in all spheres of existence: the meritorious kammic-constructions extend to the sense-and the fine-material sphere, the disadvantageous ones only to the sense-sphere, and the 'imperturbable' only to the immaterial sphere.

2. The aforementioned three terms, kāya, vacī- and citta-s are sometimes used in quite a different sense, namely as 1 bodily function, i.e. in-and-out-breathing e.g. M. 10, 2 verbal function, i.e. thought-conception and discursive thinking, 3 mental-function, i.e. feeling and perception e.g. M. 44. See nirodhasamāpatti.

3. It also denotes the 4th group of existence sankhāra-khandha and includes all 'mental constructions' whether they belong to 'kammically forming' consciousness or not. See khandha Tab. II. and S. XXII, 56, 79.

4. It occurs further in the sense of anything formed sankhata and conditioned, and includes all things whatever in the world, all phenomena of existence. This meaning applies, e.g. to the well-known passage,;All constructions are impermanent... subject to suffering; sabbe sankhāra aniccā dukkhā In that context, however, s. is subordinate to the still wider and all-embracing term dhamma thing; for dhamma includes also the Unformed or Unconditioned Element asankhata-dhātu i.e. Nibbāna e.g. in sabbe, dhammā all things are without a self;.

II sankhāra also means sometimes 'intentional effort', e.g. in the formula of the roads to power iddhi-pāda, in sasankhāra and asankhāra-parinibbāyī see: anāgāmī, and in the Abhidhamma terms asankhārika and sasankhārika-citta i.e. without effort = spontaneously, and with effort = prompted.

In Western literature, in English as well as in German, sankhāra is sometimes mistranslated by 'subconscious latent tendencies' or similarly e.g Prof Beckh:,unterbewußte Bildekräfte,; i.e. subconscious formative forces. This misinterpretation derives perhaps from a similar usage in non-Buddhist Sanskrit literature, and is entirely inapplicable to the connotations of the term in Pāli Buddhism, as listed above under I, 1-4. For instance, within the dependent origination, s. is neither subconscious nor a mere tendency, but is a fully conscious and active kammic intention. In the context of the 5 groups of existence see: above I, 3, a very few of the factors from the group of mental constructions sankhāra-khandha are also present as properties of subconsciousness see: Tab. I-III, but are of course not restricted to it, nor are they mere latent tendencies. ... kh%C4%81ra" onclick=";return false;
It is very important, but hard to understand how sankhara gives rise to rebirth consciousness. Ledi Sayadaw points out that this part of the teaching on paticcasamuppada leaves much room for misunderstanding. It is necessary to understand the extinction of the last consciousness (cuticitta) together with all nama rupa as well as the immediate arising of the rebirth consciousness together with the new nama rupa as a result of good or bad kammas in the case of living beings who are not yet free from defilements. Lack of this understanding usually leads to the belief in transmigration of souls (sassataditthi) or the belief in annihilation after death (ucchedaditthi) which is held by modern materialists.

The belief in annihilation is due to ignorance of the relation between cause and effect after death. It is easy to see how avijja leads to sankhara and how the sense bases (ayatana), contact, sensation, craving, etc., form links in the chain of causation for these are evident in the facts of life. But the emergence of new existence following death is not apparent and, hence, the belief that there is nothing after death.

Learned people who think on the basis of faith usually accept the teaching that sankhara gives rise to rebirth consciousness. But it does not lend itself to purely rational and empirical approach and today it is being challenged by the materialistic view of life. The way rebirth takes place is crystal clear to the yogi who has practised vipassana. He finds that the units of consciousness arise and pass away ceaselessly, that they appear and disappear one after another rapidly. This is what he discovers by experience, not what he learns from his teachers. Of course he does not know so much in the beginning. He discovers the fact only when he attains sammasana and udayabbaya insights. The general idea of death and rebirth mental units dawns on him with the development of paccayapariggaha insights but, it is sammasana and udayabbaya insights that leave no doubt about rebirth. On the basis of his insight, he realizes that death means the disappearance of the last unit of consciousness and that rebirth means the arising of the first unit of consciousness in the manner of the vanishing and arising of consciousness units that he notes in the practice of vipassana.

Those who do not have vipassana insight miss the point. They believe in a permanent ego and identify it with the mind. It is rejected by those who have a good knowledge of Abhidhamma but, it lingers in some people because of attachment to it in their previous lives. Even the contemplating yogi who is not yet intellectually mature sometimes feels tempted to accept it. ... c1927.html" onclick=";return false;

Another read here;
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Re: Help!

Post by SamKR »

Last edited by SamKR on Thu May 07, 2015 12:01 am, edited 5 times in total.
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Re: Help!

Post by santa100 »

For the different meanings of the term, see Ven. Bodhi's great essay called "Anicca Vata Sankhara"
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Re: Help!

Post by retrofuturist »

Mr Empty wrote:Is there anyone that can achieve the impossible, by explaining to me successfully in idiot language the meaning of sankhara?
"Something that something else depends on"

Retro. :)
"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"It is natural that one who knows and sees things as they really are is disenchanted and dispassionate." (AN 10.2)

"Overcome the liar by truth." (Dhp 223)
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Re: Help!

Post by mikenz66 »

This does capture half of part of the meaning:
retrofuturist wrote: "Something that something else depends on"
... or that depends on something else.

But it appears to overlook the volitional aspect in the context of the aggregates, etc.

Bhikkhu Bodhi's discussion in his Introduction to the Samyutta Nikaya gives a good range of examples of usage, including in the context of the aggregates and dependent origination.

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Re: Help! Meaning of sankhara

Post by chownah »

Mr. Empty,
In terms dependent origination I think sankhara can be easily explained.

Consider: Your consciousness at the present moment is in a certain state or are happy or mad or bored or alert or tired or confused or...or...whatever it might be. The present condition of your consciousness is dependent on something.....what is it? Well, the buddha teaches that it is dependent on mental activity which happened in the past. Note that this mental activity can be really obvious stuff like if you spend alot of time obssessing on something then in the future it will tend to make your consciousness a certain way at certain times...but it also can be very very subtle like if your mother feeds you every day when you are a baby and small child then you will likely associate your mother with the good feeling of being well fed and so you like being around your mother and your consciousness will be a certain way when you are around your mother or even only thinking of her....and if your mother abused you daily when you were young then you will probably not like being around your mother etc....and this is a result of the thoughts and ideas which you formulated or fabricated as a youth expressing their fruition later. It can get even way more subtle than this but I hope that this is enough to show that the mental formations (sankhara) you have today will influence your consciousness in the future.
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Re: Help! Meaning of sankhara

Post by Mr Empty »

Ok, thanks all for your replies :)

I've been listening to an audio book entitled 'Buddha's Brain' - by Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius.

In the context of dependant origination, would sankhara have much in common with the phrase 'what fires together, wires together'?

Also, Mingur Rinpoche touches on the subject of 'neuronal gossip' and 'neuronal traits' - and in doing so explains the same thing (maybe?) :)
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Re: What is the Meaning of Sankhāra?

Post by pilgrim »

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:
Those that are light are like a line drawn on water, which quickly disappears.
Those that are medium are like a line draw in sand, which disappears after a while.
Those that are heavy are like a line carved in rock, which disappears only after a long time.
Can I ask what is the origin of the maxim above? I first heard it in Goenka's discourse and was under the impression that it was his original quote.

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Re: What is the Meaning of Sankhāra?

Post by Dhammanando »

pilgrim wrote:
Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:
Those that are light are like a line drawn on water, which quickly disappears.
Those that are medium are like a line draw in sand, which disappears after a while.
Those that are heavy are like a line carved in rock, which disappears only after a long time.
Can I ask what is the origin of the maxim above?
The similes first appear in the Lekha Sutta (AN. i. 283) and the Puggalapaññatti (Pugg. 32), but here they are used to describe the persistence of anger in three kinds of persons. I don't know when they first came to be applied to kammas. ... .than.html
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Re: Help! Meaning of sankhara

Post by vinasp »

Hi everyone,

Sankhara is a word with a very wide range, the only word which has a wider range is dhamma.
Dhamma (in its meaning of 'thing') includes the unconditioned (nibbana), while sankhara does not.
It is as wide as the word 'thing' in English, and very close in meaning. So in one sense everything is a sankhara, meaning 'something made.'
But sankhara also has several restricted meanings. It can mean the action which makes something, and also the volition which initiates and guides that action.

As the action which makes something, sankhara includes kamma, action which produces a result.

From W. Rahula - What The Buddha Taught, page 22:

"The fourth is the Aggregate of Mental Formations (sankharakkhandha). In this group are included all volitional activities both good and bad. What is generally known as kamma comes under this group. The Buddha's own definition of kamma should be remembered here: ' O bhikkhus, it is volition (cetana) that I call kamma. Having willed, one acts through body, speech, and mind.'

Volition is mental construction, mental activity. Its function is to direct the mind in the sphere of good, bad or neutral activities. Just like sensations (feelings) and perceptions, volition is of six kinds, connected with the six internal faculties and the corresponding six objects (both physical and mental) in the external world.

Sensations and perceptions are not volitional actions. They do not produce karmic effects. It is only volitional actions - such as attention, will, determination, confidence, concentration, wisdom, energy, desire, repugnance or hate, ignorance, conceit, idea of self etc. - that can produce karmic effects. There are 52 such mental activities which constitute the aggregate of mental Formations."

Regards, Vincent.
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Re: Help! Meaning of sankhara

Post by Mr Empty »


Thanks Vincent, that was very helpful.
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Re: Help! Meaning of sankhara

Post by dhammafriend1 »

Sankhara can mean the Aggregate of Mental conditioning - In the case of Rebirth - it is Conditioned by the Sankhara of Ignorance (ie a Mental Phenomena) - that perpetuates Samsara. Ignorance of what ? THe Liberating Knowledge of vipassana - the 3 characteristics - the four noble truths. Once these are understood Ignorance is overcome - for example the craving for sensual experience - and existence - kama tanha and bhava tanha.....
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Re: Help! Meaning of sankhara

Post by Antaradhana »

Saṅkhārā - constructions.
Saṅkhata - constructed, conditioned.

1. Sankhara as one of the khandhas - these are mental constructions, that is ideas, emotions, mental states, desires, volitional impulses, memory.

2. Sankhara in paticcasamuppada - is a collection of kamma, constituting the next birth as its fruit.

3. Sankhara in the phrase: "Sabbe saṅkhārā aniccā, sabbe saṅkhārā dukkhā", means all constructed phenomena (all but nibbana).
All that is subject to arising is subject to termination, all formations are non-permanent. And that which is impermanent is suffering. Regarding what is impermanent and prone to suffering, one cannot say: "This is mine, I am this, this is my self".
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